North by Northeast

Author of the feted historical thrillers Back Bay, Harvard Yard, and Cape Cod, William Martin journeyed to the far corners of New England to research his latest novel, The Lost Constitution, in which his steady protagonist, enigmatic rare book dealer Peter Fallon, races across several centuries and six states searching for an original draft of our founding fathers’ greatest work. On the pages that follow, he offers a behind-the-scenes tour of his New England—and describes how these six locales offered the ideal backdrops to his action-packed mystery adventure.

Crawford Notch, Carroll, New Hampshire, from Elephant Rock

Sometimes I know exactly what I’m looking for. And sometimes I’m just looking for places that are inherently dramatic, places that tell a story—places like Crawford Notch.

Thousands of years ago, a glacier scoured out this valley and left a literal notch, less than 100 feet across at its apex. No white man knew of it until the 1770s. But by the 19th century it had become New England’s Northwest Passage. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about it. Thomas Cole painted it. Railroaders ran track right through it. Then loggers stripped the trees at its base and grand hotels rose up like airy castles on its rises.

It seemed a perfect place for an apprentice lawyer named Will Pike to make a stand on an August day in 1787. He and his brother are searching for a stolen first draft of the U. S. Constitution in a town nearby. But the bad guys are right on their heels and head them off at the Notch, where a tragic duel ensues.

“On either side of the twelve-mile-long valley dropped walls of stubborn greenery or bare granite or slagged rock, in some places a mile or more apart, in others so close that if a man shouted in one direction, his voice would echo back to him, then past him, then echo again from the other side.”

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island, from the Cliff Walk

In Colonial days, the Quakers found welcome in Newport; so did the Jews, who built America’s first synagogue on Touro Street. The town also ran 21 distilleries, because Newport ships carried rum to Africa, African slaves to the West Indies, and West Indies molasses back to the distilleries. The Revolution destroyed the shipping business, and the town slept until the 1850s, when a real estate baron built a road out to a seaward-facing cliff. After that, keeping up with the Joneses—or the Vanderbilts— would never be the same. Stroll the Cliff Walk today, with the ocean on one side and the grand “cottages” on the other, and let your imagination go. Perhaps, as I did, you’ll see one of my characters—a humble housemaid named Rosie, running from her lecherous boss on a night in 1919. Or maybe you’ll see the ghost of the industrialist who built his giant monument to money. And maybe, like Peter Fallon, you’ll wonder what difference there is now between the rich ghost and the ghost of his housemaid. Time has left them both in its wake.

“Even with the traffic and the tourist buses and the cruise ships disgorging gawkers in tank tops and Tevas, Peter Fallon felt time itself flowing along the boulevards, bubbling up through the manhole covers, reacting in the air with molecules of fried food and exhaust, so that every breath of today carried a scent of the past, whether people knew what they were inhaling or not.”

Portland, Maine, from the Portland Observatory

Writing teachers tell you to write what you know. I write what I want to know. And I didn’t know much about Portland, except that it had been burned a lot…by the Indians in 1675, by the British in 1775, and by accident in 1866, when July 4th fireworks got out of hand.

I started at the Observatory, an 86-foot tower atop Munjoy Hill. In the old days, merchants climbed ito watch for ships. Today, people climb it for the view: Casco Bay to the east, the White Mountains to the west, and Congress Street to the south, the epicenter of a vibrant little city filled with great restaurants, fine museums, and fabulous bookstores.

Peter Fallon is always getting into more trouble than an antiquarian bookseller should, and he gets into plenty in one of those bookstores. Later, he finds himself trapped at the top of the Observatory, ready to run for his life.

“‘This burg’s had more rebirths than a Hindu headed for the last level of enlightenment,’ said Peter. ‘It’s burned down and been rebuilt four or five times. And look at it now. Jumpin’ even at lunchtime.’”

The Stanley Woolen Mill on the Blackstone River, Uxbridge, Massachusetts

The story of New England is the story of the sea. But rivers tell the tale, too. The Blackstone rises near Worcester and flows just 46 miles to salt water at the tip of Narragansett Bay, dropping some 438 feet along the way. You could call it the birth canal of the Industrial Raevolution. The nation’s first spinning mill opened at the Blackstone’s mouth in 1793; soon dozens flourished along its banks.

The Stanley Woolen Mill made uniforms during the Civil War and through both world wars, too. Locals say when the looms were running at full capacity, the whole building shook. But all industries have life cycles, and the Stanley looms stopped spinning in 1988. This place became my inspiration for the fictional Pike-Perkins Mill, where a family’s fortune rises and falls with the New England textile economy. In real life, the now-abandoned spot is being born again, as housing, retail, and office space. And so the river’s tale rolls on.

“And out in the countryside, where corn grew green in spring and ripened in August and stubbled the fields come fall, farmers would stop to wipe their brows. And they would hear, beneath the rustle of the wind, a sound no New Englander had ever heard in the quiet before the nineteenth century, the distant rumble of a mighty mill turning…turning…”

Lake Champlain, Vermont

The beauty of Champlain beckons visitors, but it’s in the lakeside city of St. Albans that history was made. The center of town looks much as it did on the day in 1864 when Confederate gunmen herded people onto the town green before pillaging homes and robbing banks while children watched from inside the boys’ academy.

On the same day in history, a fictional Union veteran named George Amory takes a train to St. Albans. He, too, is searching for the fabled Constitution draft. He ingests the beauty of the Vermont landscape as he tries to forget the horrors of the battlefield. He believes he’s left the war behind, but he soon gets caught up in the raid that shocked the nation. Today, the whole town feels a bit like a stage set just waiting for historical actors to enter.

“The endless pine forests of Maine could challenge a man. The stern mountains of New Hampshire ignored him. But Vermont wrapped a man in gentle pastures and verdant hillsides, and those Green Mountains beckoned him like a lover toward the bed of Champlain.”

The G.W. Tavern, Washington Depot, Connecticut

Connecticut can be as urban as Hartford, as hardscrabble as Bridgeport, or as upscale as New Canaan or Greenwich. But the Litchfield Hills take you back to another place and a different time. Here you find the New England of memory and imagination, where narrow roads wind past genteel farms and roll through towns that seeam painted onto the landscape.

Washington may not have slept in this town in the Litchfield Hills, but he passed through more than once. So its citizens renamed it for him after the Revolution. The G.W. Tavern feels like it’s been here since then, but it opened just 12 years ago in an 1850s Colonial-style house. In the book, Peter Fallon an
d his travel-writer girlfriend, Evangeline, have lunch here with a character who’s a lot shadier than the bright interior of the dining room. All three are following the trail of the lost Constitution, which has led them to the state’s quiet northeastern hills. Peter Fallon would tell you the past is still alive in New England, no matter where you look. And we’re all the better for it. n

“The Father of his country was everywhere here—in an engraving over the taproom fireplace, in an old inn sign hanging from a beam in the dining room, in prints on the walls, in silhouette on the restroom wallpaper.”